Backpacking is a fantastic way to explore further into the backcountry.
You'll visit areas most day hikers never make it to. Spending the night out in nature can feel exhilarating, but it comes with some new challenges.
We’re going to help make it less intimidating and give you a guide to get started planning your first trip.
Key Considerations When Planning Your First Backpacking Trip
For your first backpacking trip, try going somewhere within a few hours of your home, where there are likely to be some other backpackers.
It can be tempting to plan an epic week-long adventure to some remote and picturesque place. But you’re way more likely to have a successful trip if you start somewhere familiar.
Check out local state or national parks that allow backcountry camping. These often have the most well-marked trails and maintained backcountry campsites.
Length of trip
Secondly, consider going for one night. You’ll get a taste of what backpacking is all about and be able to test your gear without too much risk.
Depending on the time of year and location, weather can play a big role in your trip planning. Here are some things you’ll want to consider:
What are the forecasted daytime highs and nighttime lows? Plan to layer clothing to be comfortable all day and night.
Is there any rain in the forecast? Even if you don’t expect rain, storms and showers come up unexpectedly, and it’s best to be ready. If you’re hiking into canyons or areas prone to flash floods, be especially vigilant about rain and only go if it’s safe.
If you’ll be camping at high elevation or where it’s cold, do you have a sleep system with the appropriate warmth rating?
Will you be in an area with mosquitos, ticks, or other bugs? Humid and wooded areas are especially prone to a lot of bugs. Be sure to pack insect repellant - we love the DEET-free wipes from Natrapel. They’re lightweight, easy to pack and won’t spill.
When backpacking, you’ll usually head out further than a typical day hike. You may also be on trails that are less traveled or more remote. This means it’s even more important to be prepared and know how to navigate in the area.
For your first backpacking trip, don’t rely on a single map app on your phone. Cell signals are often not reliable, or you may not have any service at all. Download maps for offline use on your phone.
We recommend taking a printed map of the area and make sure you know how to read it. Depending on where you’re going, you may want to pack a topographic map and a compass. Map out your route and mark important information - places such as water sources and your destination for each night.
Share your plans with friends or loved ones back home. Make sure someone knows where you’re going and when to expect you home. If you know you’ll have cell service, make a plan to check in each evening.
Mileage & Elevation Changes
Hiking with a loaded backpack can be quite challenging.
Even experienced backpackers will hike fewer miles than they would on a day hike. For your first backpacking trip, make sure you choose a route that feels easy compared to your typical hiking day.
Leave time for extra breaks during the day as you get used to carrying your pack. Some backpackers find that they enjoy a mile or two out into the wilderness just as much as a full day of trekking.
Don’t forget to research the terrain and elevation changes along your planned route. Climbing tough inclines can be hard and slow with the added weight of your pack.
Steep downhills can also be challenging. Many backpackers use trekking poles to help lessen the strain on their knees.
Hiking through the backcountry and sleeping under the stars can be rewarding. Yet, it’s often tough on your body as well.
Make sure you’re physically fit and prepared for the adventure you’re planning. Keep in mind you’re likely to be miles from the nearest road, and help could be hours away. Try carrying your pack on a day hike to see how it feels on your back before you commit to a backcountry trek.
Having the best gear and information about the trail doesn't always mean a successful backpacking trip.
You have to be mentally prepped, and what we mean by this is get to know your gear - for example, practice setting up your tent in your house or backyard. Keep in mind the packing up process too.
Also, test your cooking stove, play with your water filter, and practice packing your pack. Remember to place things you might need in an instant in places where you can have quick access to. Such as a rain jacket or rain cover for your pack.
Safety - Animals & Surroundings
It’s important to be aware of your surroundings at any time, but especially when backpacking. When you are in the backcountry, you may encounter dangers and risks you’ll need to be ready for.
Research what animals are likely to be in the area where you’ll be hiking and camping. If you are in an area with bears, make sure you read up on regulations. Such as carrying your food in an approved bear canister or if they recommend bear spray.
In many areas, small rodents such as mice or squirrels might be the biggest nuisance. You’ll want to store your food and toiletries in “ratsacks”.
Consider taking safety items such as a whistle, signal mirror, or pocket knife. Wearing bright clothing makes it easier for others to spot you if there's an emergency.
Try backpacking in small groups or with a partner. Stay on known trails, and don’t deviate from your plan unless necessary. Most importantly, be vigilant about scanning your surroundings and trust your gut. If something feels unsafe or not right, don’t do it.
What Gear to Pack for your Backpacking Trip
Most backpackers will refer to the “big 3” as the most important items to have for backpacking. Those are backpack, tent, and sleeping bag.
Choosing a backpack is one of the most important decisions to make. Backpacks come in many different sizes, materials, and features to fit anyone’s needs.
Before buying a pack, think about what types of trips you’ll likely be taking. How many days will your average trip be? Do you prefer a waterproof bag, or will you use a bag liner or rain cover?
To learn more, check out our buying guide on the best hiking backpacks.
Weight makes a huge difference in backpacking. So you’ll often see backpackers with ultra-lightweight tents to help reduce pack weight. Tents can either be freestanding, double-walled, or single-wall tarp-style.
For more information, check out our article on Best Tents Buying & Reviews. Also, see our tent in-depth reviews.
Sleeping bags are available in a wide variety of styles and price points. Remember to choose the temperature rating that fits your expected weather conditions - also that it should give you maximum comfort and safety, especially in cold weather.
In addition to the “big 3”, you’ll likely want to pack the following:
Sleeping Pad – You’ll get a much better night’s rest if you’re comfortable. Many backpackers choose between an inflatable pad or a foam pad.
Inflatable pads are generally more comfortable but often heavier or more expensive. Foam pads are versatile and durable, but less comfortable for side sleepers.
Pillow – This is a luxury item many backpackers forgo to cut weight, but some swear by. Alternatively, shove your extra clothes or puffy jacket in a stuff sack.
Cooking System - This generally includes a stove, cook pot, and fuel canister, plus long-handled fork or spoon.
For instant meals or freeze-dried meals, we recommend using the Jetboil flash Stove.
This stove is fast and efficient at boiling water.
If you are doing a longer trip and are exposed to high wind, we recommend MSR Windburner stove. The all-in-one-design performs well under high wind conditions.
If you want to be light on your feet and weight is important, we recommend the MSR Pocket Rocket 2. It's ultralight and inexpensive. However, you will need to pack separate cooking utensils. For more information on cooking sets, check out Backpacking Cook Set buyers guide.
Headlamp - We like the durable Black Diamond Spot Headlamp.
First Aid Kit - A good option is the Thrive 66-piece kit.
Trowel, Toilet Paper & Ziplock bags for trash - Be a good steward and practice Leave No Trace principles in the backcountry. Learn to dig a proper cathole for human waste and pack out your trash.
Items you might find helpful:
- Trekking Poles
- Pocket Knife
- Personal Toiletries
- Battery pack & charging cords
- Dry bag or extra ziplock bag to keep electronics clean and dry
What to Wear on your Backpacking Trip
Various hiking boots and trail running shoes are available for backpackers.
Depending on the terrain, you want to consider waterproof or water-resistant boots. Since this is your first time carrying a heavy pack, consider boots with more ankle support. Check out our Best Hiking Boots Buying Guide.
Trail running shoes are popular with backpackers in warm conditions. Trail runners are lightweight and dry quickly. Don’t forget socks.
We recommend Darn Tough Micro Crew as they hold up well over many miles. They're made with Merino wool, which can keep you cool or warm, depending on the conditions. Also, it dries quickly.
Pants, Shorts and Shirts
Look for pants or shorts that move with you and dry quickly to avoid chafing.
Some hikers like shorts because they can be more comfortable in hot weather. However, we usually opt for pants as it's a layer of protection from the sun. Also, it protects you from insects and scratches while hiking through brush.
While hiking, avoid cotton, and aim for lightweight, breathable materials like nylon. It helps wick moisture away from your skin. It also provides some antimicrobial and odor-resistant properties.
This is the opposite if you are near a campfire. Nylon will easily burn and melt into your skin. We recommend changing into cotton-based clothes as the hot embers won't melt it. Check out our Best Rain Pants for Hiking Buying Guide.
Jackets & Rain Gear
Layers are key to a comfortable backpacking trip.
Plan to mix and match a small amount of clothing. This is to provide enough warmth during any time of day or level of activity.
Remember, every item you carry adds weight to your pack. Buy lightweight jackets and rain gear to layer for warmth and protection. Check out our guide on how to choose the best hiking jacket.
We like the Arc’teryx Beta AR rain jacket and Patagonia Nano-Air jacket. Both are great for layering.
Many backpackers choose to carry clean shorts and a shirt for sleeping. In cold weather, consider a long base layer shirt, pants, and extra socks.
Merino wool is great as a base layer as it helps regulate body temperature. It also wicks moisture from your body, keeping your body warm.
Learn more about Merino wool and how it's a great material for hiking.
What to Eat & Drink on your Backpacking Trip
To cut carried weight, many backpackers choose dehydrated or freeze-dried meals. Brands such as Mountain House, Backpacker’s Pantry, and AlpineAire are popular.
Also, the cleanup is super fast. However, they can be pricey if you are packing for multi-day hikes.
As this is your first backpacking trip, you can pack your own food using simple items from the grocery store.
Things like instant rice, pasta, mashed potatoes, ramen, and even mac and cheese. Since these things only need hot water. Also, don't be afraid to pizzazz your meals with spices.
Here our 5 of our Favorite and Easy Backpacking Meals.
For protein, look for packaged tuna, salmon, and spam. Nut butter is great, and they come in single-serving packets. We love Justin's Maple Almond Butter.
Other items include tortillas, beef jerky, and energy bars. Also, apples are another great fresh item to have. They travel well.
Think of things that won't spoil fast on long hikes. When planning your first backpacking trip, write out a list of meals you’ll need to eat. Choose items that will feel satisfying and provide necessary calories, salt, and protein.
For first-timers, we recommend packing more food than necessary. You'll figure out how much food your body actually wants or needs as you get more experienced.
Hydration & Filtering Water
One of the biggest differences between day hiking and backpacking is the amount of water. Also, it comes down to how much water you’ll need and where you’ll get that water.
You’ll need enough water to stay hydrated all day, plus enough for preparing meals. Water weighs 2.2 pounds per liter, so carrying water adds weight to your backpack.
Check out our guide to Staying Hydrated to seeing how much water you will need.
If you’re backpacking through an area with access to water sources, you’ll be able to carry less water at a time. Keep in mind water sources may be unreliable. So make sure you research current conditions and alternate sources.
Most natural water sources need filtering and purifying before drinking. Even if it's natural spring, you'll need to purify it to get rid of viruses that can ruin your trip. You have to take into wild animals' contaminants. See our guide on the best Purification/Filtration system for backpackers.
List of Recommended Backpacking Gear
DEET-free wipes from Natrapel
Jetboil Flash Stove
MSR Windburner stove
MSR Pocket Rocket 2
Black Diamond Spot
Thrive 66-piece kit
Darn Tough Micro Crew
Arc’teryx Beta AR
Justin's Maple Almond Butter
Patagonia Nano-Air jacket
Planning your first backpacking trip is an exciting first step to new adventures.
Research what gear you’ll want to take and plan your destination carefully to set your trip up for success. But most of all, remember that you can’t control mother nature and sometimes things don’t go as expected.
A final tip is to keep a journal of what worked, what didn’t, and what you’d do differently in the future.
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